Monday, 18 April 2016

#26: Bloodbones




BLOODBONES

Jonathan Green

Reviewed by Mark Lain

The history of this at one time almost mythical book has been recounted umpteen times so, to avoid repetition of things we probably already know, in brief, this was intended to be number 60 in Puffin’s original series but its release got cancelled when Puffin canned the whole series at number 59 and so this book fell into a black hole until Wizard Books finally let it see the light of day in 2006 as number 26 in its first FF series. Up to that point, Wizard had only given us one other “new” title in what was otherwise a sea of re-issues and that book (#21 Eye of the Dragon) was actually just a re-hash of a shorter adventure that had originally appeared in Ian Livingstone’s RPG primer Dicing With Dragons. So, after 11 years we finally had a genuinely new FF book and, more importantly, it was the long-awaited completed version of Bloodbones. I remember when this came out and, like many FF fans, I had waited years for this book to appear so I eagerly grabbed it from the shelves of Waterstone’s, coughed-up my £4.99 and took the book home to play. Since then, this is a book I have been more than willing to replay over and over – the exact opposite in fact of how I feel about the dreadful Eye of the Dragon as, simply put, Bloodbones is excellent.

The basic premise is a simple revenge tale, but it is the sheer quality of the adventure that carries it through. Years ago your village and family were murdered in front of you by the evil pirate Cinnabar (aka Bloodbones) and you have vowed revenge ever since. After a lengthy period working in Allansia, you are back in your homeland of Ruddlestone (where much of JG’s FFs are set) and you now have the chance to get closure by killing Cinnabar. However, you are soon told that someone else got there 6 months ago and killed him for you which is a bit disappointing until you discover that, actually, he’s being brought back from the dead by his crew to wreak havoc once again as an undead voodoo pirate thing. And so you set about hunting him down, which forms the plot of the adventure itself. Divided into four main sections, the plot involves you first searching around the Port of Crabs trying to find the pirates’ secret hideout (and acquiring equipment and intelligence whilst you’re at it), then getting abducted and taking a sea voyage, followed by a jungle trek around Bone Island in search of part 4, which is a dungeon trawl through the Temple of Quezkari (Cinnabar’s voodoo God of choice) to eventually catch up with Cinnabar’s ship and despatch him once and for all. The four sections have a good mixture of puzzles, traps, encounters, and info gathering which makes it all very varied without ever losing the primary focus of your character’s motivation. The plot in general is delivered in an exciting way and is very well paced with no lulls and the plot thickens as the game progresses, with encounters growing ever more interesting as it all develops. The voodoo atmosphere is laid on very thick and Green’s always atmospheric writing style really makes you feel his creations and environments.

To expand on the theory that this one builds as it goes (meaning you will benefit more from sticking with it right through), after a lengthy opening spiel, the initial section in the Port of Crabs is the weakest, but this coming first does make the later parts seem all the better. There are several gamebooks that fail due to everything being thrown at the initial part leaving the rest of the book to slowly fizzle out. Not so the case here. Whilst there is a fair bit to do in the Port of Crabs, there is a problem in that no useful information is really given to you as to the location of the hideout that you are trying to find in this part and its discovery is by pure chance. Yes, throughout the adventure you need information (and equipment) that you can only find by exploring the town, but the actual thing you are looking for is never signposted – you simply pick the right path and stumble across it. Structurally, you have more or less free rein to search all the parts of the town (assuming you don’t die or get arrested, of course) and there are two parts even to this – a daytime area and an after dark part, with only two locations being available to visit at both times of day (although visiting one of them at night is a disastrous decision!) Subsequent playthroughs will reveal that, whilst you have the illusion of choice, most areas are red herrings designed to eat up your time and stats with only two being essential to visit in the day and two (or one and a half, really) being necessary to be visited after night falls. There is a certain amount of leeway given in the first section and you can visit a few unnecessary areas without being totally scuppered, but the optimum route through the Port of Crabs is relatively brief.

On the subject of Time, this book requires you, in the first section only, to keep track of Time in hours. This is quite logical as you are trying to catch Cinnabar’s ship before it sails and he gets away so, the more time you waste, the less chance you have of catching up with him. The Time mechanic works well, adding a sense of urgency (and focus) and teaching you to avoid going off at too many tangents in each playthrough. Once you find the pirates’ hideout your Time is checked: you must have taken less than or equal to 8 hours to get to this point otherwise the ship has literally sailed. It seems that the shortest possible time you can get there in is 5 hours (with 12 being the worst) so you can essentially take three wrong turns and still get there on time. Anyone familiar with JG’s FFs will know that this is an unusually generous gesture!

Part two involves you being abducted by Cinnabar’s crew, getting chucked (or jumping) overboard, fighting a big shark, getting rescued (in a nice link to part one this will only happen if you had stopped the ship that potentially rescues you from being wrecked on the rocks earlier, incidentally), dealing with a ghost ship, then getting shipwrecked by a massive sea monster. This is the shortest section, but a lot of great material is crammed into it, especially the ghost ship which is a superb creation (in fact, it’s probably my favourite part of the book), and it is a lot of fast-paced and quite scary fun.

Part three is basically a jungle that provides more key equipment but the design of it is interesting and unusual in that it is randomly generated based on throwing two dice. This means that the usual FF linearity is subverted and that, to a certain extent, the actual encounters and incidents in the jungle will never be the same twice. The core moments will always happen by necessity, otherwise certain randomised routes would make the game impossible to complete, but this is a neat way of creating some variation in each playthrough. Granted, the dice-generated events add nothing to the plot and have no material effect on it other than to increase or decrease your stats a bit, but the element of inevitability with encounters is removed, which is a good thing.

The final section in the temple (a dungeon trawl, by all intents and purposes) is punishing in the extreme with traps and lethal moments everywhere, the outcomes of most of which are controlled by stat testing and/or arbitrary dice rolling. As failure almost always means death, this part is quite frustrating and you will probably resort to cheating the dice rolls pretty quickly.

...And this point brings us to difficulty. Bloodbones has been criticised for being ridiculously difficult, but I disagree with this. There is no question that this book is VERY hard, but it is also reasonably balanced, all things considered. It is far from easy, but it is certainly not impossible and is still far more beatable than any of JG’s previous three FFs! There is no doubt that you must have very high starting stats to stand a chance, as there are a ridiculous number of Skill and Luck tests (plus a few Stamina tests), but there are also many ways to increase all three of your core attributes (especially your Luck), be it through special items, the huge amount of food and drink that you can get hold of, or even a few moments where Initial values can be increased and/or stats can be restored to their initial values. Many of the later combats are undeniably difficult (there are four unavoidable fights at the end with very tough enemies and this alone will probably kill you many times) and many of these foes have adjustors that can deal you serious damage, but the earlier ones are far from hard and this, again, is unusual for a JG book as you usually have to deal with double-statted enemies from the outset. Plus you can always use Luck to make the later combats a bit less brutal. As with all later-era FFs, there are several cheat-proofing maths tests but these come at appropriately logical key moments and, for once, the puzzles are satisfyingly challenging but are far from depressingly obscure in their solutions like some of FF’s maths puzzles can be. As we have already said, the Time stat is not too damaging to progress as long as you do not waste too much time and it does afford you some freedom. The real killer with this book in difficulty terms is the sheer number of items you need (as well as a fair bit of information) and this is another example of a FF with a very tight true path, although its deployment varies from stage to stage. Curiously, in the sea voyage and jungle sections, the true path involves taking the longest route possible and going basically everywhere, whilst the port section involves trial and error to find the most efficient and least dangerous path through (with a bit of scope for digression), which does add a bit of variety to the usual execution of true paths! JG’s favourite ploy of codewords is back but they seem to drive the plot more effectively here. I am not a fan of codewords in gamebooks, but I can live with them here as they seem to be less intrusive than normal and do play an important part in making the plot flow logically. Overall, in difficulty terms, this book is definitely win-able, but you do need high stats, a lot of trial and error, and the dice to be on your side!

A big plus in JG’s gamebooks is his referencing of actual historical, cultural, and literary tropes and there is, amongst other things, a neat cameo from a Ben Gunn-like castaway that is a nice inclusion. This NPC is clearly bonkers but he also acts as the catalyst to your acquiring an essential time that you cannot win without having, so there is method in his madness, if you have the patience and are willing to take the many risks to get the item. As this is a book about pirates and voodoo cults, a lot of the encounters are of the zombie or pirate-y kind (there’s actually a vampire pirate at one point, which is a fun touch), and the jungle has more than its fair share of creatures with the adjective “Giant” in front of their names and, whilst this may all seem a bit repetitive, it all suits the context. In terms of other creature encounters, I have to mention two excellent creations – the Treasure Golem and the totally manic idea of the Cat’o’Nine-Tails (an actual cat with nine tails, in a clever spin on an obvious nautical idea.)

It is hard not to be drawn to Martin McKenna’s stunning green zombie pirate captain cover and, along with the obvious mystique of the title in FF circles, this was another reason why I had to have this book when it first came out. Indeed, this is a case where you CAN judge an excellent book by an excellent cover. All of the internal art is Tony Hough’s work and it really captures the 18th Century pirate era look that the text puts across, as well as the horror of the animal and undead encounters. If I have a criticism of TH’s art it is that he does not draw people well and they always seem a bit squat and look far too friendly – the image of the advancing Cinnabar in particular is not in the slightest bit scary.

“Book number 60” was eagerly anticipated and the 11 year wait was well worth it. People were inevitably going to judge the book quite harshly and many slated this as “too hard” or “dated”. I do not think it is either of these. Bloodbones is an excellent FF with lots of atmosphere, fast pacing, and a catalogue of fantastic incidents. It is very hard to put it down once you start playing it and you really do feel compelled to keep re-trying until you can beat it... which you definitely can do as the feeling of hopelessness that some of the hardest FFs can give you never arises when you play this book. In many ways, this is a very fresh FF – only two are based around pirates and only this one involves you having to defeat them – and it is full of energy and imaginative moments that are never at odds with its three central themes of revenge, voodoo, and, of course, salty seamen. If this had been the final Puffin FF rather than the desperately boring #59 Curse of the Mummy, the series would have ended with a spectacular and worthy bang rather than a pathetic whimper like it did.

PS: JG’s Gamebook Adventures offering (#7 Temple of the Spider God) bares more than a passing resemblance to a slightly re-thunk version of Bloodbones!

PPS: Am I the only person who finds the question “Do you have a fetish?” both hilarious and a little personal lol?


2 comments:

  1. Sounds a bit like The Riddling Reaver in solo form.

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    1. Good point James. There are certainly very obvious structural similarities. If you enjoy Bloodbones and you haven't tried Temple of the Spider God I'd recommend that too - it's a very similar gamebook but based around conquistadors instead of pirates.

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